The system isn't working

How 50 years of Republican authoritarian politics has nearly destroyed our democracy

By Lucian K. Truscott IV


Published February 3, 2018 8:00AM (EST)

 (Getty/Win McNamee/giftlegacy/Salon)
(Getty/Win McNamee/giftlegacy/Salon)

Sometimes it’s a good thing to have a few years on you, and right now is one of those times. I come from what you might call the “duck and cover generation.” We’ve been called other things over the years, notably “baby boomers” and the “me generation.” But as it has dawned on us that we have an unstable, trigger-happy madman given to bragging about his “big button” in the Oval Office, that we actually went through the ridiculous school drills intended to teach us how to survive a fucking nuclear attack has more and more meaning.

We were there for the years of the so-called “Red Scare,” when Senator Joseph McCarthy and Richard Nixon and members of a thing called the House Un-American Activities Committee held hearings and generally rattled their oratorical sabers warning us of the menace of dread communists in our midst and of course overseas in the Soviet Union, where scary monsters like Joseph Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev ruled a nation and an ideology bent on destroying The American Way of Life.

I have vivid memories of photographs in Time and Life magazines of Khrushchev giving speeches to the Supreme Soviet, the equivalent of our congress under communist rule. Notice what I said there: communist rule. Because that was how it was taught to us. Over there in the Soviet Union, they had Khrushchev, the leader of the communist party, a dictator. We had Ike, a freely elected president. We had a House of Representatives and a Senate, elected by the states and districts they represented. They had fake “elections” for their Supreme Soviet, a fake legislature under the control of the communist party. We had our court system, and the Supreme Court, and our Constitution. They had a fake Supreme Court under the control of the communist dictator, Khrushchev.

We were shown “educational” films about the communist menace. God only knows where the schools got these black-and-white gems. There were scenes of Khrushchev speaking to the Supreme Soviet in the Grand Hall of the Kremlin, more than a thousand representatives sitting there listening to him drone on and on, applauding on cue, occasionally rising to their feet, then sitting back down to listen to more “Soviet propaganda.”

We were taught that we had a real congress that conducted hearings and had debates and reached compromise and consensus before they voted, and that was the way bills became law. In our democracy, we were told, there was fairness, there were checks and balances, and there was the “rule of law” under our Constitution. In the Soviet Union, it was all for show. It was fixed, prepared in advance. Khrushchev was proposing stuff like  the “Ten Year Plan,” and over in Communist China, Mao got up and pitched “The Great Leap Forward,” and it was bullshit, because it all came out of one-party rule with a puppet government run by a dictator.

In my time we were around to see our system of government work. There was a lot that was wrong about our country when I was growing up, and it was right there in the pages of the national magazines like Time and Life and Newsweek for us to see. There was poverty and segregation. Blacks in the south weren’t allowed to eat in the same restaurants as whites, or use the same bathrooms, or even vote.

But our system of government was there to fix it. The Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education declared segregation unconstitutional. Our congress in Washington passed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, setting things right. When the elderly got sick and died because they couldn’t afford health care, they passed Medicare. Sure, there were compromises, and they weren’t perfect fixes, but that was the American way. In the end, problems got fixed. Our presidents might have had their flaws, and some of our politicians might have been a little crooked, and we had our sex scandals and thievery and lies, but in general, the system worked.

It’s not working anymore. The Congress of the United States today behaves like the Russian Supreme Soviet. What the hell was that so-called “tax cut” they passed, but a Republican “ten year plan” to steal from the poor and give to the rich, likely to leave this country in the same hellhole Khrushchev's “ten year plan” left Russia. We are watching every single day what Republican control of the House of Representatives means. The House Intelligence Committee has been transformed by Republicans from investigating Russian interference in the elections of 2016 to investigating the two top law enforcement organizations charged with enforcing the nation’s laws — the FBI and the Department of Justice. Last week, Trump refused to impose sanctions the House voted 419 to 3 to punish Russia for interference in the election of 2016. What did the House do? Nothing. No one — and I mean no one — believes there is a so-called “red line” that President Trump could cross that would cause the House to hold him accountable to the laws of the land. There is practically nothing Trump does on a daily basis that doesn’t amount to obstruction of justice. The constant lying, the goddamned ridiculous “memo,” firing the FBI director, hounding the deputy director, threatening the jobs of top people at the Department of Justice. All the House does is sit there. What they want is for Trump to continue as president without any further questions about Russia, without any further investigations or prosecutions. Period. Full Stop.

What if Special Counsel Mueller indicts Trump or files a report to the Congress detailing obstruction of justice and conspiring with agents of the Russian government to steal the presidential election? Does anyone think the Republican congress would begin hearings in the Judiciary Committee to consider impeachment? No. What do you think they would do? I’ll tell you. Nothing. It’s as if Trump is mad King George, and we never had a revolution or wrote a Constitution or invented our beautiful, precious American Way of Life.  People keep saying we’re not in a constitutional crisis . . . yet.  Bullshit. We’re smack in the middle of one right now.

The remedy for the kind of authoritarianism represented by Trump and his corrupt, supine Republican party  is to elect new people who don’t behave that way. Arguably the most brilliant thing the founding fathers did when they wrote the Constitution was the way they structured voting for our representatives in congress. They gave senators six-year terms, so their elections wouldn’t always coincide with presidents elected for four-year terms. They gave House members two-year terms, so voters could fairly quickly make corrections to the national government if they came to believe it was somehow going off the rails.

But that system assumes a more or less level electoral playing field, and we don’t have one of those any more. Several factors have contributed to this, but they all have one thing in common: they come from the so-called “conservative movement,” a core group of right-wing thinkers and activists who set out about 50 years ago to seize one of the political parties and bend it to their will. The party they seized was the Republican party, and they completed their takeover in 1994, when conservative Republicans swept into control of the congress under the tutelage and leadership of Newt Gingrich.

Their goal wasn’t merely to gain control of congress, however. They had bigger plans. They worked assiduously to place conservative Republicans on the Supreme Court where they could do stuff like defenestrate the Voting Rights Act and turn over funding of American election campaigns to millionaire and billionaire donors and the businesses they run. On the state level, through groups like ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, funded by billionaires like the Koch brothers, Richard Mellon Scaife, the John M. Olin Foundation, and the Coors beer family, the conservative movement has campaigned to take over state governments and pass laws that make electing Republicans a sure thing. They have set voter suppression laws in place, limited the abilities of Democratic party leaning groups like unions to raise money, and gerrymandered electoral districts in favor of Republicans.

The current situation in Pennsylvania is a perfect example. In a state that is virtually a toss-up between Democrats and Republicans in statewide elections, they seized control of the state legislature and gerrymandered congressional districts so the state is represented by 13 Republicans and just five Democrats. Faced with a state supreme court decision ordering them to draw more fair congressional districts, the Republicans are refusing the court’s order to turn over the maps and voting data that would redraw the boundaries of the congressional districts. They don’t want to follow the law. They don’t want to compete for Pennsylvania’s seats in the United States Congress. They think they should own them.  

It might have begun as a fever dream in the dim synapses of people like Newt Gingrich, but it’s reached its apotheosis with Donald Trump and the Republican party that enables him. They don’t even blink when every day there are stories about Trump demanding “loyalty” and asking if people are “on my team” when they are supposed to be impartially administering the laws. They don’t want a democracy. They want totalitarian rule. And the incredible thing is that they have settled on Donald Trump as the man they want to rule us.

The Constitution provides a remedy for all of this. In fact, it provides several. Enforce the rule of law. Prosecute people found to be violating the law. Remove from office people who refuse to follow the law. Vote them out of office. That’s the way the system is supposed to work.

The question is, what kind of system do we have? Benjamin Franklin was asked just that question as he walked out of the Constitutional Convention over 230 years ago. “What kind of government have you given us, Dr. Franklin”

He answered, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

We’ll see.

By Lucian K. Truscott IV

Lucian K. Truscott IV, a graduate of West Point, has had a 50-year career as a journalist, novelist and screenwriter. He has covered stories such as Watergate, the Stonewall riots and wars in Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also the author of five bestselling novels and several unsuccessful motion pictures. He has three children, lives in rural Pennsylvania and spends his time Worrying About the State of Our Nation and madly scribbling in a so-far fruitless attempt to Make Things Better. You can read his daily columns at and follow him on Twitter @LucianKTruscott and on Facebook at Lucian K. Truscott IV.

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